How to Choose: Painting vs Staining a Deck

Thinking about painting vs staining a deck to update it? Here’s how to choose the best method that’s right for you!

A wooden deck comes with an array of benefits: it looks great, it provides a nice dedicated space for you to relax and enjoy the outdoors, and it can even add value to your home should you ever decide to sell it.

That said, it also requires protection, lest you see your cherished space succumb to rot before too long. There are two ways to gain said protection—painting and staining; and, however similar they may seem, there are in fact key differences setting them apart.

That’s what we will be covering here: what each option entails, general guidelines on their procedure, and more importantly, how to choose between one and the other.

Why Even Bother Painting or Staining a Wooden Deck

Can you leave the deck as is? Sure, if you’d like—but you might want to keep in mind that, in nearly every region, exposure to the elements will inflict noticeable wear and tear upon your space.

Teak, a notable exception, is known for its remarkable resilience, but it can be quite onerous to use it in you entire deck; and even this hardy wood will benefit from a good special oil to bolster its durability.

An unfinished deck may feel like the best for a natural, rustic look, but it will come at a price down the road as, sooner or later, the wood will begin to warp and develop cracks… and, ultimately, it will rot. In other words, your deck will become unusable way before its time.

Fixing this sort of damage will require more time, money and effort than painting or staining could, even combined. A timely application of your chosen finish will save you a lot of future headaches.

What is the Difference Between Paint and Stain?

Although they might appear to mean the same, the main difference between painting and staining is what you apply with your brush. With the former, you are using actual paint, i.e. something that modifies the color of your deck; whereas the latter involves a stain, which is overall transparent. There are certain differences in terms of composition, too, but we will get to that in a moment.

Why is it even an issue to choose between painting and staining? That would be because of the following factors.

Wooden backyard deck that could be covered with paint or stain


Painting is more expensive right off the bat, particularly because you have to choose a paint that is specifically formulated for the outdoors—such as this one. And that’s not all you’ll be spending on: there’s also the wood preservative, and the primer so the paint will properly latch on to the surface.

Staining, for its part, requires only the stain itself; most of them already come with a wood preservative as part of their formula, and there is no need for a primer—which, additionally, makes its application less labor-intensive.


Painting, by definition, will turn your deck’s original, natural look into a surface that is of a single color all over (and you can, of course, switch from one color to another); whereas stain might merely darken the area—and that chiefly depends on how many layers you apply, and how opaque the stain is—, but the look will otherwise remain unchanged.

Owing to this point, you can switch from one to the other, but mostly in one direction: you can paint a deck that was previously stained easily enough; switching a painted deck to staining, on the other hand, requires significant effort—as you essentially have to sand down the whole thing.

Resistance to the elements

Paint simply lies on top of the wood, allowing moisture to pile on top; this can eventually lead to the paint chipping away. A stain, on the other hand, is better at sealing the wood and keeping moisture out; it provides better UV protection, too.


A well-done painting job can last for as long as 10 years; staining, on the other hand, will require reapplying every 3 to 4 years.

How to Choose Between Paint and Stain

Does it come down to personal preference, or to necessity? In this case, it’s a little from column A, a little from column B.

Rainbow painted stairs

When Painting Is the Best Option

If one or more of these apply, then you should paint your deck.

  • Your deck is old and you’d like to hide its imperfections.
  • You’d rather not worry about retouching often.
  • You want access to a wider variety of color possibilities—perhaps even to harmonize your deck with the palette of the surrounding area or the rest of your house.

When Staining Is Better

If you identify with any of the following, then staining is likely the optimal choice for you.

  • Keeping your deck well protected is more important to you
  • You are a fan of the natural look of the wood your deck is made in. Let’s face it, some wood grains are really easy on the eyes.
  • You want to (or must) keep your costs as low as possible, both in terms of money and effort.

Maintenance Is Good Preparation

The following steps are a good way to help your deck last longer, even between finishes. Whether you’ve performed them recently or not in a while, they should be checked off before any finish is applied.

  1. Clear the deck. This will make cleaning it easier, but it will also help ensure that those items that are usually within (furniture, cushions, potted plants and so on) will not be splattered when the real work begins.
  2. Sweep away as much debris as you can—twigs, leaves, dust. If necessary, use a putty knife to remove anything stuck between boards.
  3. Apply a deck detergent to the area. Whichever you choose, it should be appropriate for the surface you’re working with (in this case, wood), such as this one. For application, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s directions, but the procedure usually implies application with a roller or a mop, letting sit for 15-20 minutes—if necessary, you can scrub with a stiff bristle broom, to remove stubborn grime—and then a thorough rinse. For the latter, you can use a hose with a good enough stream, or a power washer with a 45° tip, set at 1200-1400 psi. To avoid damage, spray in the grain’s direction, and keep a distance of 8 to 10 inches.
  4. Inspect the wood. If there are damaged boards, it’s best to repair them now, so they will receive their coating along with the rest of the deck. You can use a claw hammer to remove the compromised board, have a replacement cut to the same dimensions (or do it yourself if you have the know-how), and then install it with a power drill and a screw drill bit. The replacement should, of course, be cut in the same type of wood and stain as the rest of them; that said, expect it to stand out a bit in its more weathered surroundings.

Worth noting: cleaning (steps 1-3) should be done about once a year; step 4, inspecting the wood, can be done more often, so that you can repair any damage as soon as you spot it.

How Staining Is Done

If you’re stopping by this section, then odds are you are leaning towards a more natural look and thorough protection for your deck. Let’s get to it.

Stained deck at a cabin
  1. Prior to doing anything, it’s often recommended to test the stain on an inconspicuous corner of the deck; let it dry, and see if the color meets your expectations.
  2. It’s a good idea to give the surface a good sanding if it looks a bit too rough, and also to raise the grain and make it better at holding onto the stain you’ll be applying; an orbital sander and appropriate pads can make this job easier. Use 60-80 grit for the main boards, and 80-100 on the handrails. When the sanding is done, vacuum thoroughly so the dust won’t get in the way of your finish.
  3. Once your deck is clear, clean, and sanded as appropriate, it’s best to wait until your weather forecast does not mention any rain for the next 2 or 3 days. Avoiding direct sunlight while applying the stain will yield even better results.
  4. Time to wield your brush. Begin by giving a few good passes on the open ends of all boards. When that’s done, continue by coating their surface, following their length from end to end, two or three boards at a time. Each subsequent pass should begin before the previous one’s end—i.e., your newly dipped brush should fall on wet stain every time before running further up the boards. This will prevent lap marks. Important note: it is highly recommended to also coat the underside of the boards; the more thoroughly sealed, the better.
  5. Stop at a single coat; more layers are, in fact, not necessarily better—the stain might not dry properly, or it could start to crack way too soon. Furthermore, each subsequent layer will darken the wood, potentially too much for your liking. Give it 2 or 3 days (this is why we need no rain for this time span), then you may start using your deck again. You’re done!

Whenever you start wondering if it might be time to replenish that stain coating, there’s an easy way to find out—if the water just beads on the boards, then the finish is still performing appropriately; if it seems to seep in, then it’s about time to reapply.

How to Paint a Deck

So you have made your choice; you want your deck a uniform color. Here’s how to make it happen. Worth noting: it will take more work than staining does, but it will be worth it to realize your aesthetic vision.

However eager we may be to get our proverbial hands dirty, we’re not ready just yet. First, we have to take a few preliminary steps.

Child painting backyard deck

1. Find Out How Much Paint To Buy

By now, it is assumed you have selected your brand, type and color of paint. For the next step, calculate your deck’s square footage (width x depth). Then, find out how much your can of paint covers; this information is usually on the label or the literature. Finally, divide the two numbers. If, for example, the paint claims to be good for 300 sq ft, and your deck is 450 sq feet, then 450 / 300 = 1.5 cans.

If you plan to apply 2 or 3 coatings, remember to adjust the square footage accordingly (900 or 1350 sq ft, respectively), and don’t be afraid to buy a little more paint than your math tells you to; it’s better to have too much than not enough, and you can always use the surplus on the railings, or simply for retouching.

Don’t forget to add the stairs if you have them: calculate the steps’ individual square footage, multiply it by the number of steps, and add it to your total sq ft.

2. Primer, Yay Or Nay

We mentioned before that this is a fairly important step when painting—and it is, but not always. More specifically, priming is more critical if you’re painting on bare wood, as the primer fills in small nooks and imperfections on the wood’s surface, providing a more even layer for the paint to lie upon

If, instead, you’re painting over a previous coating (if you’re merely changing colors, for example), and that old coating is still in good condition, then priming is not necessary.

If, for good measure, you decide to prime even though the old paint is still good, then it is a good idea to match the primer to the old paint—specifically, the base, be it oil or water.

3. The Equipment

Aside from your protective gear (which should be a given), there’s the matter of what tools you will use for applying the paint. The most highly recommended choice is a roller with an extension, which allow you to apply an even layer as you go.

You can also use a brush, especially for filling in between the boards, or to paint certain spots that are too hard with a roller, such as railings and the underside of the boards (as mentioned before, the more thoroughly covered, the better).

A kit like this one is a good way to quickly get everything you need. If you’re priming, you might want to get two kits—one for the primer, one for the paint—, so you won’t be mixing things up.

4. The Sanding

If your deck is showing chipped off paint all over, then one must scrape the paint off (this is not necessary if the paint coating is fine and all you’re doing is changing color). The first pass should be done with a wire brush; the second pass, with a scraper (just be careful not to gouge the wood out). Last but not least, the sanding: make your passes in the direction of the grain (going against it might cause scratches on the surface), preferably with a sanding sponge.

This will take you longer, but it is better for avoiding damage on the wood; if you really want to save some time and effort, you can always go for an orbit sander.

Whichever you use, 80 grit should serve you well for this job. Before sanding, you might want to hammer back down any nails that might be sticking up, or replace them entirely, so they won’t get in the way.

5. The Priming

To reiterate, this step is more strongly advised when painting on bare wood. If you ultimately chose to make it happen, then go ahead and give the can a good shake. The can should have been shaken by the manufacturer, but it doesn’t hurt for you to give it another go so everything within is well integrated and ready for you to use. When it’s all ready, apply a single coating with a brush, then use a roller to remove any runoffs.

6. The Paint Job

Pretty self explanatory. Apply with your roller, liberally but not excessively. Use your brush for the nooks and crannies, for the boards’ ends, and also for the undersides. Two coats are usually enough, but some softwoods might require as many as three.

With paint, you have to ways to ascertain if it’s time to reapply. You can either to the water test we outlined on the staining section (if it beads up, you’re good; otherwise, time to plan for a recoating), or check for signs of the paint peeling away.

As mentioned before, you shouldn’t need to worry about doing all this work any time soon: a good painting job ought to last roughly ten years in normal conditions.

Closing Thoughts

Laborious though it may be, giving your wood deck a protective finish is simply good practice, as it will enhance its looks and help it last far longer than it would if left vulnerable to the elements.

You can, of course, go for a uniform color—but you can also preserve its rustic looks by applying a stain instead of painting. All that’s left for us to do, is to wish you many happy memories in your cozy,  well-maintained deck!